Marie does not want June Morrissey the day the child is dropped at her doorstep. June’s mother was Marie’s sister, but she recently died, and June was found in the woods, surviving on only pine sap. Marie looks at the girl and notices that she has a rosary around her neck. She doesn’t want June because she can’t feed the children she already has, but Marie takes her anyway, and before long, Marie begins to love June even more than the other children.
June’s rosary is symbolic of Christianity’s presence in Native life and experience, and it is further evidence of Native assimilation to European, or white, culture. Marie’s deep love for June harkens to Erdrich’s central claim that family is more than mere blood ties, but it also lends insight into why Marie later tells Lipsha that June wanted to drown him. Marie’s lie causes Lipsha undue pain, but it is Marie’s way of ensuring that Lipsha, whom she loves as fiercely as she loves June, doesn’t leave her the way June eventually does.
Marie had married Nector because she thought he was smart, but that is only if she can keep him away from alcohol. Now, he is hardly home, and Marie is left alone with the children. One day, Zelda runs into the house and tells Marie that Gordie and Aurelia are hanging June from a tree. Marie runs outside and hears June telling the children to tighten the rope. Marie grabs Aurelia and Gordie, giving them a firm swat, and pulls June from the tree. June is upset and blames Marie for ruining their fun. Marie swats June, too, and throws her into the house.
Most of the characters in Love Medicine struggle with alcoholism, which is further evidence of the hardships indigenous people face related to racism and discrimination in America. Erdrich implies her characters drink to escape their pain or forget their past, which is directly linked to the trauma of forced assimilation. Surprisingly, June is upset that Marie ends their dangerous game, which doesn’t necessarily mean June wants to be hanged, she simply wants to be accepted by the other children and included in their “fun.” June is not biologically a Kashpaw, and she frequently feels disconnected from them.
With Nector gone in town most of the time, his brother, Eli, begins to spend more time with Marie and the children. Eli lives alone on the other side of the reservation, and even though he does drink some, he never goes overboard. He often sings old Cree songs that make Marie feel lonesome. Marie knows that Nector is having an affair (everyone in town knows, too), and he sometimes doesn’t even bother to come home at night.
Eli is less assimilated to white culture and has been less affected by the government, as he did not attend residential schools and has spent his entire life on the reservation. Since Eli has less experience with the government—and thus also has less trauma—he does not drink to the same extent Nector and the others do, which suggests he has less pain and has less to forget or avoid.
One day, June tells Marie that she wants to live with Eli. Marie tells her to go, and then she reaches silently into the lard can, where she keeps June’s rosary beads hidden. Marie touches the beads without removing them. Marie never prays and only goes to church so others don’t think badly of her, but she sometimes stops to touch the rosary. It is her “secret,” and she doesn’t even look at the beads as she runs her finger over them.
June’s rosary is symbolic of Marie’s connection to Christianity, which she observes in her own tentative way. Secretly touching the beads is like a modified prayer to Marie, and she turns to the comfort of this prayer to help her through the pain of June leaving. June’s rosary is also symbolic of Marie’s connection to June—even though June is not Marie’s biological child, she still deeply loves her and is connected to her.